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Opinion | Michigan must invest to battle impact of climate change

As the international community concludes another round of climate talks and Congress continues to negotiate plans to address climate change in the United States, politicians and elected leaders across Michigan must face the reality that our communities are already paying the price for a changing climate.

Abraham Aiyash
Abraham Aiyash is the state representative of Michigan’s 4th House district, which includes Hamtramck and parts of Detroit. (Courtesy photo)

From flooding in Detroit and coastal damage along the Great Lakes, to a growing number of hotter days that threaten our health, agriculture, and ecosystems, extreme weather events are becoming more common and costly. Protecting Michigan’s diverse communities against this new climate reality will take more than just political will — it also requires serious financial investments.

That’s why I joined fellow Democrats in the Michigan Legislature to support investing $5 billion toward making our local infrastructure — including dams, sewers, shorelines, and drinking water — more resilient against climate damages. These investments are absolutely critical to protect against future damages. They’re also financially smart. According to one study, communities across the Great Lakes region have spent nearly $900 million to respond to stronger storms, precipitation and other climate-driven damages over the last two years. In the next five years, the bill is estimated to be as high as $2 billion. Every dollar that we commit to climate adaptation now can avoid $4 to $11 worth of future damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments.

However, we cannot adequately discuss the true costs of climate change without addressing two major elephants in the room.

The first is that climate change does not impact all Michiganders equally. Existing racial and economic injustices make low-income residents and people of color far more vulnerable to climate threats. These communities are already more likely to lack access to resources like clean drinking water and air conditioning, and they also are more likely to live closer to the front lines of extreme weather and industrial pollution. Hamtramck and Detroit are surrounded by corporate polluters that emit pollutants in our neighborhoods and have suffered from harsh rains last summer. Our climate resilience plans must prioritize those residents most at risk.

The second is that we are not all equally to blame for this crisis. Corporate fossil fuel producers are responsible for the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. These companies knew decades ago that the fossil fuel products they sell and profit from cause “catastrophic” climate change, but as a recent congressional hearing highlighted, many have spent those same decades spreading climate disinformation in order to keep us hooked on their gas and oil and stymie legislative action.

Representative Rashida Tlaib was among the members of the powerful House Oversight Committee who grilled the heads of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP America about their industry’s role in funding front groups that churn out misleading ads against pro-climate measures. One campaign she cited was launched earlier this year against some of my fellow Michigan legislators, promoting false and deceptive attacks against a solar energy bill that would have helped residents reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.  

While we as Michigan taxpayers are forced to spend millions, even billions, to protect ourselves against climate change damages, we should also consider how to ensure these lying polluters pay their fair share. Whether that is turning to the courts — as a growing number of states, including Minnesota, have done — or exploring new legislation, the issue is one of basic fairness. When you make a mess — and especially when you lie about it — you should be responsible for cleaning it up.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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